The Passion of Joan of Arc ★★★★★

I never believed the hype. A film made in the 20s, a silent film made in the 20s, being declared by some to be the best film ever made? Sounds like something only a film historian could say. Sounds like homework, like you have to know about film in the 20s to see how this one sets itself apart. Yawn. At least it is only 82 minutes.

I believe the hype now, and I ain't no film historian.

Dreyer didn't want to tell the story of Joan of Arc, he wanted to tell the story of The Passion of Joan of Arc. If Joan is God's daughter, she met the same fate as her brother. Both had trials. Both were prosecuted by religious leaders. Both were sentenced to death. Where Jesus was betrayed by a friend, Joan was betrayed by a duplicitous 'friendly' priest presumably sent by the King. Worse, she betrayed herself when fear of torture led her to sign a paper denying she was sent by God, claiming instead that she had been deceived by the devil. Both were killed.

It is because Dreyer focused on a very small story within Joan of Arc's life, her trial, prosecution and death, that we come to know her in a much more fundamental way than is possible in the larger story of her life. Dreyer emphasizes this with sparse settings and extreme close-ups, focusing on faces for most the film. We rarely see Joan's full body. Everything, then, rests on actor Maria Falconetti.

Falconetti's performance is unforgettable. Having to limit herself to facial expressions, it is astounding what she is able to emote. On a number of occasions we see her go from wide-eyed fear to understanding, ending with half-closed eyes showing suspicion, perhaps even cynicism.

My only complaint was the extra wide open eyes that she uses too often, especially in the early scenes. I don't know if it was the style at the time or if perhaps the actor, famous for the stage where exaggerated expressions are required, didn't know that cinema requires more subtlety. It was the only thing that bothered me.

The unusual framing is stunning. It is what I love so much about Wong Kar Wai films, and contributed to my love of Ida, Pawel Pawlikowski's 2013 film, also shot in black and white. Unusual framing just to be artsy never flies, but when it contributes to (or creates) a mood, when it acts as an arresting photograph that tells the story on its own, it is one of the most divine things in a film. I see now that it comes from Dryer.

The music is a must. Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light, sung by Anonymous 4 is truly an amazing score. The crescendo at the end while the fire engulfs Joan is breathtaking. I cannot imagine this film without that particular score, and I'm not sure I would revisit the film without it.

I always love stories that compare those who think they are righteous to those who are. Joan, the only true believer, the only true soul, the only pure one, being judged by religious leaders trying to manipulate her with lies, is so sad. Granted they were an overly unsympathetic bunch to start off with, perhaps too much, but that doesn't matter, it just makes their behaviour more obvious. Even if they had seemed more reasonable we would still be left with powerful religious leaders who rationalize their manipulations as being in the name of God. Boy that sounds familiar.

When Dryer decided to focus the film in bare white rooms, it was claustrophobic, and served to enhance the image of powerlessness in the face of Big Religion. When they threatened to take away the Eucharist during the last Sacrament, using their tradition to manipulate, the horror on Joan's face was as heartbreaking as anything I've ever seen. And when she finally gets it and prays, the purity she displays, the peace that engulfs her is so powerful that even her prosecutors know they are seeing the true meaning of that ceremony, for the first time.

I love that Dreyer decided to tell the real story of Joan of Arc, rather than a string of events spanning 18 years.

Believe the hype.

Part of the Sunday Mornings with Coffee series.

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